More than a thousand protesting villagers clashed with authorities in Fujian province after a suspected chemical leak killed a large number of fish in the Min River, according to a Hong-Kong-based rights organisation.
Five villagers were injured in the incident, during which the protesters disrupted traffic by blocking the main road linking Gutian county with the provincial capital, Fuzhou, on Saturday night, the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy said yesterday.
Traffic jams continued until yesterday morning, when the centre's statement was issued.
The demonstration took place after huge numbers of fish began dying in the river, starting on Wednesday, between the townships of Huangtian and Shuikou, with the wave of floating dead fish reaching the latter on Friday.
The rights centre's statement said the dead fish numbered in the 'tens of millions', a figure which tallied with estimates given in news reports on state television and radio.
No official explanation was given for the accident, but the centre said locals suspected it was due to a chemical leak from pharmaceutical factories upstream that produce antibiotics. The area is home to a large number of fish farms, and the accident has had a devastating impact on the industry.
Photographs published by Xinhua yesterday showed fish-farm cages chock full of floating dead fish. Water in the river was giving off an unbearable foul stench yesterday, Xinhua reported. It said more than 8,000 crates of dead fish had been removed from the river in Shuikou, and a further 1,000-plus crates were removed at Huangtian.
China National Radio reported that the dead fish numbered 'several tens of million', and that the losses to the local fishing community were estimated to be at least 200 million yuan (HK$244 million).
The station reported that the provincial environmental protection agency, local authorities and the provincial fishing association held a meeting on Saturday morning.
The cause of the fish deaths was being investigated and the findings were expected to be released by the local government within the next few days, the report said.
Gutian county, about 100 kilometres northwest of Fuzhou, is the province's biggest producer of grass carp, with Shuikou alone normally supplying 250,000 catties (each equalling 500 grams) of the fish to the province's markets every day, Xinhua reported.
The Min River is one of the most important waterways in Fujian, and is known colloquially as the province's 'mother river'.
It is also the source of drinking water for several million people between Gutian and Fuzhou.